The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

October 14, 2008
Kevin Johnson's troubling pledge to union firefighters

Back in early September, we asked mayoral candidate Kevin Johnson for a copy of the pledge he signed at the behest of  Local 522, the Sacramento Area Fire Fighters Union, which had endorsed him. He wouldn't give it to us. So we asked the union for it. They refused as well.

Two weeks ago when Johnson came to the editorial board for an endorsement interview, we again asked for the paper he'd signed.. He refused to give it to us and told us to get if from the union. We tried. They refused as well. So we appealed to Johnson's campaign manager, Steve Maviglio. After several days he persuaded union officials to send us a copy. Here it is. Read it and you'll understand why Johnson and the union wanted to keep it under wraps.

In it Johnson promises to support an as yet unwritten union initiative. "I support the Neighborhood Firehouse Protection Act which guarantees Sacramento City spend necessary resources to keep every fire company in the city open, fully equipped and staffed at a minimum of four firefighters." The promise to maintain four-person staffing is the most troubling part of Johnson's pledge. Many urban fire departments, including the Sacramento Metro Fire Department, use three-person crews. Because the city of Sacramento's contract with city fire fighters requires four crew members, the city has had to shut down fire engines because they cannot all be staffed to that level. If the city had three-person crews it could afford to keep those engines running. It also could afford to open a badly needed new fire station in Natomas. Johnson's pledge, if enacted via an initiative, would lock the city's current, expensive staffing policy in place so that no future city council could change it.

 Johnson is apparently willing to jettison other city budget priorities to give union firefighters what they demand. The pledge he signed goes on to say, "This measure does not include a funding source and I understand possible cuts could be incurred by parks and recreation, youth programs, libraries and other city departments."

Firefighter union leaders sent a cover letter along with Johnson's pledge that obviously seeks to soften its full meaning. They point out that the initiative has not yet been written and that the union has "not decided to go forward with this effort." They also say that Johnson "made it clear to us that every department of city govenment, including the fire department, would be reviewed in light of budgetary constraints."

But if the initiative Johnson has pledged to support does go forward, it would tie the hands of all future mayors and city councils. It would prevent the city from making sensible fire staffing changes  to protect other vital city services -- police, for example.

Because of budget problems, the city council has cut the police budget 8 percent. They cut the fire department only 4 percent. To save money police have been forced to double up in patrol cars. Fire fighters still get to maintain four person crews. Where does Johnson stand on police versus fire? The pledge he signed suggests that fire takes precedence over police. Does it? It's a question that needs answering as the campaign enters the home stretch.

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About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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